No. 5: Fatal fires lead to lawsuits, spotlight on rental fire safety

12/26/2012

By ANGIE HAFLICH

By ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

Two separate house fires early this year resulted in the filing of wrongful death lawsuits and shed light on landlords' responsibilities in regard to providing and maintaining working smoke detectors for tenants.

The first fire occurred at 4220 E. Nancy Ave., Lot 1108, Garden City, on Jan. 8, and claimed the lives of Nichole Savoy, 26, and her two daughters, 6-year-old Bryn Abigail Savoy and 22-month-old Madelyn Rae Savoy.

After being investigated by the Kansas state fire marshal, the fire was determined to be an accident. The fire started in the east bedroom of the home being rented by Savoy from Steve Burgess, Garden Spot Rentals owner. Savoy had been renting the property for about 10 months, according to Burgess.

At that time, Garden City Fire Chief Allen Shelton confirmed the home was not equipped with smoke detectors. Under the Smoke Detector Act, which was passed in 1998, all property owners must equip homes with smoke detectors on each floor.

At that time, Burgess said he wasn't aware of the law. He has since installed smoke detectors in the 300 rental properties that he owns in and around Garden City.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed Sept. 13 on behalf of Mike Savoy, Nichole's husband and the two girls' father.

The lawsuit names as defendants Burgess and his wife Ann, Garden City, who owned the home, and their property management company Garden Spot Rental Enterprises, LLC. It claims that the Burgesses failed to provide a safe rental house by not providing a smoke detector in the home, as required by law.

The lawsuit calls for a trial by jury and seeks in excess of $75,000 in damages for Mike Savoy. It was filed by Dodge City Attorney Dave Rebein in the Finney County District Court.

"I think the issue is worth pursuing across the state because it tends to be the elderly, the poor, the young — the most vulnerable members of our society that live in rental properties — and so we need to make sure that they're reasonably safe," Rebein said in September. "And this is an inexpensive item that could be easily supplied and should have been in this case."

The second fire occurred on March 10 at 1105 Church St. in Scott City and claimed the lives of Jackie Coberly, 28, her 4-year-old son Brandon Carter, and two girls, 8-year-old Terra Murphy and 6-year-old Cassie Murphy.

Ken Hoover, fire chief of Scott City, said at that time that the community hadn't seen a fatal fire within its city limits since the 1970s.

"It was just accidental," Hoover said. "It's unusual because four people died in it. ... You always hope there's no one in there."

After being investigated by the State Fire Marshal, the fire was determined to be an accident and reportedly started near a radiator heater in the laundry room of the house.

Two separate wrongful death lawsuits were filed against a Wichita-based home health agency and the owners of the rental home on Aug. 1.

The lawsuits name Wichita-based Windsor Place At-Home, which was contracted to provide in-home care for Coberly, who was a quadriplegic. The suits also names James and Linda Noll of Scott City, who owned the home that was being rented by Coberly.

The suits were filed by Attorney Stephen Torline in the Sedgwick County District Court. One was filed on behalf of Jeff Murphy and his ex-wife, Brenda Murphy, the parents of the two girls killed in the fire. The other was filed against Windsor Place and the Nolls in the deaths of Coberly and her son.

" ... One of the things we're trying to accomplish is to create some groundswell, if you will, to get that law in the books, make it mean something, so that when a landlord takes the rent from a young family like this, that before he rents the property, he thinks twice and makes sure that there is a functioning smoke detector in the house," Torline said in August.

There are currently no updates regarding the status of the lawsuits regarding either incident.

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